There’s an old shipping container on the grounds of St. Edward’s University in Austin that holds an unusual amount of promise for the future of communication.
It has been painted gold and long since shed its freighting duties to become a work of modern art.
From its dark interior you can see the other side of the world. Literally.
Named the Portal by its creators, it is an immersive, life-sized video conferencing link to 16 cities around the globe, and it could be a sign of things to come.
Public Teleportation by Video Call
The Portal was created by New York group Shared Studios in an attempt to create new connections between people separated by distance and culture.
It began as a single link between New York and Tehran a few years ago, and has since grown with demand to include cities such as Kabul, Mexico City, Kigali, and El Progreso in Honduras, along with a bunch of U.S. locations.
Inside the darkened St. Edward’s container is a room-sized screen, a projector, and some hardware and computers essential to the operation of any good video calling hub.
The curious are invited to use the Portal to strike up random conversations with their peers around the world. And, short of a few technical snags and lags due to the variations in internet networks around the globe, it appears to have been quite a hit.
Now, this work is intended as transient art and so will move on from St. Edward’s in mid-November. However, it could be the forerunner to more permanent, and publicly available, video conferencing hubs around the world.
Free International Video Calling
There’s no shortage of free video conferencing apps and programs currently available that will link your desktop or smartphone to the wider world.
However, there are two distinct advantages the Portal possess.
Firstly, it’s environmentally immersive, in the manner of a cinema or theater, rather than relying on cumbersome VR goggles – most of which operate simply by removing your peripheral vision to concentrate your gaze, and can be recreated using cardboard.
Secondly, it’s open to all comers. And that part is what’s most interesting, especially for resource-poor communities.
Imagine a series of these Portals strewn across populations the world over, and available for free, under some basic sort of booking system, to anyone who wanted to connect with distant friends and relatives, meet potential business partners, or just connect with the rest of their earthly brethren.
The Portal could become the modern equivalent of the telephone booth, with more than a little nod to the Dr. Whovian time-travelling version.
A Telephone Booth for the New Millennium
Despite a rapid decline in use, there are still some 200,000 public telephones in the U.S. That’s because there’s still a demand for them in many communities, even though the populist view of America would have you believe everyone has a smartphone with an extensive data plan in their hands now.
The same is true of many places beyond the U.S. In fact, while countries such as India are booming in their smartphone and internet use, that growth is currently outstripping the network infrastructure required to power the devices.
An independently powered and satellite connected Portal could bring the latest in internet communications to any community. The Meraka Institute has already begun building basic internet kiosks in South Africa under its Digital Doorways program, in an effort to improve computer literacy.
With a little funding and the generous donation of a few shipping containers, these kiosks could be brought up to Portal standards.
Free International Video Calling
The Portal struck connection problems because it was dependent on limited land-based cable connections. But take your service to the stars and you can overcome local infrastructure.
With a satellite connection, though more costly in a commercial operation than broadband and still slower than its terrestrial cousin, each community could have its own conduit to the world.
The immersive nature of the Portal, and its huge video projections, lets people recreate the whole gamut of human communication, and makes things a little more personal and than a quick Skype call.
That could be useful if, aside from the obvious personal connections, you wanted to get a more professional meeting underway.
Say a community in a remote area of India wanted to take their local products to an international market. They could use the portal to make detailed presentations, and extol their unique virtues on a large screen (the Portal lets you see the entire body of the person you’re communicating with, unlike Skype’s headshot view).
Portals could also be used to bring expert teachers, health professionals, civic planners, and aid groups into clearer view. Here in the U.S. a Portal-type system could accomplish the same thing, levelling the internet playing field free of charge.
That’s cheaper than a call on a public phone.